The Triple Team: The Hornets’ random collection of disappointing talent reminds us of what the Jazz could have been

In defeat, Charlotte provides a cautionary tale for rebuilding teams.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) goes to the basket as Charlotte Hornets guard Bryce McGowens (7) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 120-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The Hornets as cautionary tale

In an alternate universe, the Jazz could have been the Hornets this year.

The Hornets have a bunch of extremely random NBA contracts on their roster. They signed Gordon Hayward to huge money, for some reason? Terry Rozier is a good player, I guess. LaMelo Ball actually is a rising star, on one side of the ball, anyway. Kelly Oubre Jr. has helped teams before. P.J. Washington is a nice complementary piece. Mason Plumlee’s played 20-30 minutes per game his whole career. Dennis Smith Jr. is a guy.

And you put it all together and get this: a 13-35 team that’s completely devoid of life.

Watching the Hornets was very frustrating tonight. They played a lot of one-on-one ball, as they put up sweeping, out-of-control shots on drives and layups. They looked pretty disengaged defensively. The height of happiness for their team was when Oubre went out during a first quarter timeout and stole one of the Jazz Bear’s plush Hornets he was using for a skit. The Jazz won this game really quite easily.

But I’ll be honest: I was concerned that this Jazz season would be just as devoid of life as the Hornets is right now. They too were a random collection of talent — remember, ESPN NBA writer Zach Lowe called them “an airport waiting area” of players. Those guys tend not to play well together.

Somehow, this team has. It’s a huge credit to everyone involved. First of all, Lauri Markkanen deserves credit for breaking out as a star while still playing a team-first game. Jordan Clarkson edited his style of play to pass the ball more. Mike Conley has stayed engaged. Even guys like Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rudy Gay haven’t been wildly selfish this year — to the extent that they’ve disappointed, it hasn’t been due to a lack of passing.

Will Hardy is a very different man than Steve Clifford. I actually like Clifford as a coach (he somehow turned a team with Al Jefferson at center into the league’s third best defense one year) but Hardy’s able to connect with his players at just a different level.

And as a result, I think it’s a better developmental environment. Meanwhile, both the Hornets’ first-round picks last year — Kai Jones and James Bouknight — are completely out of their rotation. This year, lottery pick Mark Williams played backup center, but he’s mostly been third string this season. Their future looks very dependent on LaMelo Ball.

Now, the Hornets could get the No. 1 pick this year, get Victor Wembanyama, and all of a sudden, have everything be fine. But this has really been a pretty wasted year for Charlotte. For Utah, it’s been anything but.

2. Jazz defending the 3-ball

The Hornets went just 2-16 from 3-point range tonight, for only 12.5%. Meanwhile, the Jazz shot 16-40, for 40%.

Coming into the game, it makes sense that there would be some differential: the Jazz are ranked fourth in the league at allowing the fewest 3-point attempts, while the Hornets are the league’s very worst team from deep, percentage-wise. But being outscored by 42 points from the 3-point line is pretty much a surefire recipe for getting beaten and likely getting blown out.

And as you’d expect, credit goes partially to the Jazz here and blame partially goes to the Hornets.

Take this play for example: this is probably one where a good team gets a successful corner three. But the pass is a little awry, Ochai Agbaji’s closeout is pretty good, and then the Hornets’ spacing is rough enough that two Hornets literally run into one another, leading to a turnover.

This play is probably one for Terry Rozier in the corner, but Mike Conley does a good job of cutting off the pass and getting around a screen — it traps Gordon Hayward in no mans land.

But beyond that, it was pretty disappointing how few plays the Hornets ran for threes in general, too. In order to get threes, you have to be intentional about it. The Jazz run a ton of plays which don’t involve the Jazz driving the paint, instead having Lauri Markkanen coming around multiple screens, or setting a flare screen for Clarkson, or whatever. Clifford seems more focused on attacking the paint. His players aren’t exactly bombers from outside, but there needs to be some balance there.

3. Talking to Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward brought up the boos.

“I still see a lot of familiar faces and still have some good relationships here in Utah. It’s fun coming back here, certainly tonight it seemed like there were less boos than in years past. That’s nice.”

Honestly, I kind of feel bad for that guy.

I mean, yes, he absolutely stabbed the franchise by leaving in free agency on July 4, 2017. He gave the Jazz zero ability to pivot: it was too late to chase after Kyle Lowry or Otto Porter Jr., other Jazz targets that summer. Everyone involved — Quin Snyder, Dennis Lindsey, the Millers — were furious for how he behaved in that free agency session, about how he left the Jazz in such a lurch. Heck, I was furious too, the way his agency lied to us about making a decision on his departure only to post that desultory Players’ Tribune article hours later.

That they recovered quickly was through the semi-miracle of Donovan Mitchell’s development, but his absence still loomed large when the Jazz needed more talent in those seasons.

And yeah, he’s made $210 million over the course of his career. So, you know, he can dry his tears with money or whatever.

But you know what? Money doesn’t solve all of your problems. Gordon Hayward wanted to be an NBA star, an NBA champion — and he isn’t. He got hurt five minutes into his new deal, one of the worst injuries we’ve ever seen. He got immediately usurped by his Celtics teammates, then got dumped by that team. And now he’s a bit player on a 13-35 team — a player clearly not capable of what he once was. I don’t care if you have $200 million or not... that would hurt.

He was young, he made mistakes, and he’s paid for them. Does he still deserve our boos? I don’t know.

But more than being mad at Hayward at this point, I’m more sad to observe his case of potential unfulfilled.